In it’s most basic form, time-lapse photography refers to a technique where film frames are captured at a much slower rate than their intended playback rate.
A simple example would be watching a flower’s final bloom on film. The bloom might take two hours, but the video of it blooming takes only a few seconds. This is done by shooting consistently-intervaled still shots of a flower over time, dropping the shots into a video editing program as a shot-per-frame and compiling into a video.
To keep the math simple, if it took 240 shots to capture the bloom, and the bloom video is going to playback at 24 frames per second, then the resulting video would be 10 seconds long. There’s more to it than that, but we’ll get more into math later.
Photo VS. Video Time-lapse
So, if that’s time-lapse photography, what is time-lapse video?
Time-lapse video is a technique using video to create a somewhat similar effect, only through simpler means.
As a series of still shots over a long period of time shrink to make a time-lapse video, the same trick can be applied to video shot at normal frame rates. Shoot a video at 24 frames per second, and then speed that footage up in an editing program to 200 percent. Or 1000 percent. The result is that more time is covered in the footage than in the sequence. A 10 second sequence can show an hour of footage, if that’s the desired effect.
There are few effects that can match the feeling conveyed through a thoughtful time-lapse.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it pretty much is. Shoot it, speed it up and call it a day. Some pros even call the technique fast forward shooting, as that’s the concept behind it.
So which is better?
While video time-lapse is certainly easy — just shoot it and jack up the speed — both techniques have real merit in certain scenarios. Video time-lapse is great when the camera is in motion. Mount a GoPro Hero 3+ to the front of a motorcycle and drive up to the lake with video recording. Speed up the footage in Premiere or iMovie while the grill warms up and the result should be pretty cool.
Alternatively, time-lapse photography is great when the camera is locked down and the subject is in motion. While the burgers are cooking, stick a Canon T5i on a tripod and shoot the sun going down over the lake over a few hours. Also very cool, but in most cases this takes a little bit more work.
Time-lapse photography may be more involved, but the technique gives the shooter a fair bit more control over the end result. All of the variables of still photography can be played with to achieve incredible time-lapse results. Shutter speeds can be altered, different modes can be selected on the camera, and the end results benefit from the huge resolution still shots are captured in. Even using an old Nikon D90, it’s possible to compile a 5K time-lapse sequence shot entirely in RAW. That’s pretty amazing!
The extra resolution also helps when working in post, particularly if the end goal is a 1080p or 720p output. The video can be zoomed and framed exactly to fit with all of that extra shot size.
Ok, so we’re all in agreement: time-lapse photography and video are a good thing. So how the heck does one go about creating their own time-lapse video using a DSLR?
Tools of the Trade
The bottom line with time-lapse photography is this fundamental: images at intervals placed into a sequence of less time makes up a time-lapse. The time discrepancy is the “lapse” part.
To create a time-lapse using a DSLR, there are a couple of potential options, depending on the model of camera being used. Some DLSRs include time lapse functions built right into their on-board software. The ability to set shot intervals, hit the trigger release and lock it in place might be all that’s necessary to create a time-lapse with some cameras, but for many this isn’t possible. It also doesn’t allow for deep control over the time-lapse settings.
To take control of the time-lapse and truly get the most out of the camera, most shooters will invest in a tool called an intervalometer.
To take control of the time-lapse and truly get the most out of the camera, most shooters will invest in a tool called an intervalometer.
The intervalometer is pretty much what it sounds like: a doohickey that controls shot intervals. It also doubles as a remote trigger release. This is important, as even the slightest shake in the shot can really mess up a time-lapse, and even the smoothest of us are going to shake the camera a bit when we press that button.
At it’s core, the intervalometer controls how often, how long and how many shots are to be taken. Most decent intervalometers have cool options, such as setting a timer for the very first shot. This is handy to preset a shot that either needs a subject in the shot, or may not even start for a few hours (say, after bedtime). Also, there are controls for choosing the interval between shots, choosing the exposure length of each shot, and determining the total number of shots.
There are also traditional shutter release features, such as locking the shutter open for long exposure shots, thus saving the shake created when using the shutter release on the camera body.
There are different models of intervalometers, which work with different cameras and have different features. Assess which features are most important to your shooting before buying, and research the big brands and third party products.
If buying more hardware isn’t in the cards, there are options to get around the intervalometer. Software is available that allows the camera to be tethered to, and controlled by, a laptop. This won’t be ideal for every shoot (e.g. shooting on an ice shelf in the middle of the Arctic during a rainstorm), but allows for another option without the investment of an intervalometer. Some cameras ship with this kind of software, but many third parties create this software to work with various cameras using a PC or Mac laptop.
One other essential tool for longer shoots is an AC adapter. For some reason, DSLR cameras are one of the few high-end products that never ships with an AC adapter. They are purchased separately, and are usually priced between $75 and $150, depending on the camera. Third party adapters are available, but be sure to do some research, as a bad adapter can damage a camera.
Setting up the Shot
Getting the perfect time-lapse captured can be a bit of a stunt, but here is a quick and easy guide to some common situations and some interval settings to try. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but a decent starting place.
A good baseline principal to start with when shooting time-lapses is that faster motion requires shorter intervals between shots. Depending on the desired outcome, this doesn’t always have to apply, but in many cases choosing settings based on this principle will yield the smoothest final result.
- One-second interval: this is good for things like traffic, or clouds on a breezy day
- Two-Four-second interval: try playing with intervals in this range for clouds on a calm day, busy areas with many people walking or the sun rising
- 15-60-second interval: the sun passing overhead (watch your eyes and your camera sensor when shooting the sun!), starscapes, slow moving shadows
- Longer intervals are great for really long projects such as time-lapsing a trade show booth being set up, or a plant blooming.
Remember to calculate the number of shots necessary to reach an objective. For example, if the final output is going to be at 24 frames per second and the project requires 20 seconds of content, it will be necessary to shoot 480 still shots to achieve the goal (24 frames per second x 20 seconds). To calculate the amount of time necessary to capture the necessary shots, multiply the previous result by the time interval.
So to capture those 480 shots using a four-second interval we’ll need to shoot for 1,920 seconds or 32 minutes.
These calculations get more complicated as other variables come into play, so bring a notebook and calculator along on the shoot!
Other settings to consider are exposure (shutter speed), ISO and frame rate, but these can be experimented with for effect. A couple of tips on exposure though are to allow a bit slower shutter speed (longer exposure) to create some motion blur and smooth out the shot (particularly when shooting those traffic scenes at night), and keep in mind that no matter what the interval setting must exceed the length of the exposure.
As always, there are no rules, and experience is often the best teacher. Shooting a few time-lapses will help with understanding the effect the interval has on the final output.
Putting Time into Motion
AC Adapter: check. Intervalometer: check. Motion-control unit: wait, what?
While we previously concluded that the camera should stay stationary for time-lapse photography, it should be noted that there are some considerations. It would have been more accurate to state that the camera needs to stay absolutely stable, as opposed to simply stationary.
Simply, a motion control unit or device is a small, super-slow, ultra-smooth motor which can power a camera along a slider. There are variations, but when getting started the setup will usually be a slider with a motor mounted on it to drive the carriage holding the camera.
The idea is that the motor will be slowly moving the camera along the slider track while the camera carries out the time-lapse it was programmed to execute. When done properly, the results can be incredibly dramatic!
It’s clear now that time-lapse is a topic larger than what can fit into one article. Learning to play with the settings, deciding on frame rates, choosing hardware and stabilizing the setup are all aspects that can take a lot of time and effort. Combining this new technique with those which exist in every project — framing the shot properly, choosing appropriate subject matter and choosing shoot times and locations — make time-lapse photography and video an art in and of itself.
It’s important to remember that we’re still in this for fun. Even if video is a career, the best way to get excellent at it is to practice. Luckily, practicing can be a whole lot of fun. There’s nothing quite like setting up for a night time starscape time-lapse shoot. Beyond the camera, tripod and other necessary gear, be sure to pack a cooler or thermos, a lawn chair and an imagination.
Best Practices for Time-lapse Shooting
A quick look at YouTube shows us that there are nice time-lapse videos out there and crummy ones. Even some beautifully conceived ones aren’t executed well. Like many video projects, a bit of planning and practice goes a long way. That’s why we put together a short list of tips and best practices that have helped guide many a time-lapser through a shoot.
Number one: Go with manual focus. If necessary, get the subject in focus using auto-focus prior to the shoot (remember to turn auto off once focus is set), or just get the distance and focus figured out in Live View mode before starting the shoot.
Number two: Shoot in Manual Mode. There are arguments for shooting in Aperture Priority mode, or even full auto, but experienced time-apse experts all learned the hard way at some point that these modes aren’t a good solution across the board. It’s possible to get a decent time lapse in auto or AP/AV, but if the camera is compensating for conditions over the course of the shooting, there will be inconsistencies in the look of the final video (flicker, etc.).
Number three: Shoot in RAW. Again, there are arguments for using lower resolution modes, but in this age of cheap memory, it always makes sense to get the best possible material to work with. RAW images can be manipulated and corrected, instead of the baked-in crumminess of JPEG images.
Number four: Practice like crazy. Going to the mall with the partner and anticipating a 20-minute shoe shop? Take along a small tripod and camera and use the opportunity to sit at a bench and shoot time-lapse of the feet walking towards and away from the camera. Going on vacation to Saskatoon? Relieve that boredom by shooting clouds. Bonus points if you capture a tractor making it’s way across the horizon. The lesson is that there is something to shoot anywhere you look!
Number five: Compose shots properly. While it’s always important to compose a shot, there is a new element to consider — the motion of the subject. Where is the subject going? What angle will look the coolest in a final product? Ask yourself the questions that will help drive a successful conclusion.
Number six: Finish the production properly. Once the sequence is together in Premiere, Final Cut, Lightroom, or whatever program was used to create it, take the time to put music and sound effects to work to give the shot a feel. Think back to those trips to the planetarium. The hollow effects and music changed an animation on the roof into the dank, hollow expanse of space. Try to take your time-lapse somewhere by putting music and effects in place that make it more than just a video sequence.
Number seven: Don’t sweat it if the equipment is too expensive. Ok, this one is open to interpretation, but there are times when we are simply too limited to buy every piece of equipment on the market. Spent $4,000 getting a Canon 5D Mark III and a lens, and can’t afford an intervalometer and an adapter? Yep. Been there. Look at alternatives, as they truly do exist. While that shakiness of pressing the shutter release on the camera body is an issue, there’s nothing saying that a human can’t take care of the shutter release manually. There are cheap shutter releases available. Some as cheap as $5-10 for just about any camera imaginable. Take a bit of time to set shot settings, then DIY. Use the timer on a smartphone to keep timing pretty consistent. It’s more work, but something is better than nothing.
Also, check out fun and easy options, like using a GoPro. Even older GoPros have time-lapse settings. They’re also very versatile for shooting time-lapse video as well — they suction mount to just about anything, and they have a ton of frame size and rate options. Newer ones also come with remotes and can tether to smartphones which can save pressing that shutter release manually.
Remember, having fun and learning will not only keep you coming back for more, but will teach you the fundamentals to be awesome when the pro gigs start rolling in.
Russ Fairley owns a Toronto-based video production company and is the host of RFShow.TV.